Words Matter. Susie and Otto Collins explore the power of language in a relationship and give suggestions on how to repackage our communication
Have you ever felt absolutely clueless when your partner gave you a furious look, stormed out of the room or lashed out? This happens to men and women all the time.
It’s certainly happened to us!
Having even a simple conversation can feel a lot like walking through a minefield if you have a tendency to use certain words or leave out other words. Tension can lead to full-blown arguments, which can easily develop into something bigger, depending on how you communicate things.
Communication can shut down, creating a chilly distance (or awkward silence). When that happens, your connection with your partner can shut down too. Here’s one example:
Justin is frustrated by his girlfriend. He wants to do whatever he can to make the relationship work, but he feels like he’s always saying the “wrong” thing. Especially when it comes to talking about the future, conversations are treacherous. He doesn’t know how to get his girlfriend to understand that he loves her and also wants to take things slowly. He tries to avoid the topic, but it seems to come up often. When it does, Justin tries to be sensitive, but when his girlfriend gets hurt, she pulls away from him emotionally. Afterwards, she gives him the “silent treatment” and doesn’t return his texts or calls for days. During those times, Justin worries that she’s broken up with him. He doesn’t want to lose his relationship, but he also doesn’t want to feel rushed into marriage.
Our advice to Justin is to pay closer attention to the words he’s using. Especially when it comes to sensitive and difficult topics like the speed of a relationship. It’s important for him to recognize which words push her away and which ones bring her closer.
It’s easy to slide into self-righteousness or get defensive when your partner shuts down. These thoughts may eveb pass through your mind:
“It’s not my fault that she doesn’t understand.”
“It’s not my fault that she’s so sensitive!”
You might even be correct (at least partially). It’s possible that your partner is misconstruing the meaning of your words because of his/her own beliefs. It’s also possible s/he’s simply confused, operating from inaccurate assumptions.
Either way, though, remember that being “right” won’t resolve anything. It definitely won’t bring you harmony or connection with your partner.
Being mindful of your words is absolutely crucial but it’s not always easy to do when you’re frustrated, confused and triggered. When your partner shuts down, take a step back and think about the words you just used. How could you have said the same thing differently so that s/he can really hear you? How can the two of you move forward on this subject together and what language choices do you have to make?
“You never_____” and “You always_____”
Though you probably already know how damaging generalizations can be, it’s likely that you still use them when you’re irritated, angry and upset. It’s during heated discussions or during a stalemate that it’s often the most tempting to use these constructions, but you’re better off avoiding them.
Because it’s very very unlikely that they’re true. If you were to somehow objectively review your partner’s actions, you’ll find an exception. If you looked at the situation as an outside observer, you’ll find many exceptions, which prove that it’s unfair and untrue to say that your partner “never” or “always” does that particular thing.
Not only is it most likely false to use words like always and never, but more importantly, those words are cutting. They come off as an attack, which can lead your partner to shut down and tune out whatever else you have to say.
Instead, try phrases like….
“I feel ____ when you _____”
Get specific and avoid sweeping statements that put your partner on the defensive. Yes, address the flirting, the secrecy, the insult, the difference of opinion or whatever is going on, but speak about that situation and how it makes you feel. For example:
“I feel angry when you forget to pay our phone bill.”
“I feel worried when you invite him to your apartment.”
“I feel pressured when you make a promise that involves me without asking me first.”
This first phrase can be a lead-in for creating agreement with your partner that both of you can be happy with. Sometimes, just changing the language can reverse a bad situation or a pattern that puts your relationship in danger.
“Because our relationship is so important to me______”
Our friend, Justin, could use words like these to speak to his girlfriend about the tenuous topic of the future. He could explain to her that he wants to take things slowly because getting it right with her is a priority for him. He can tell her about how he’s trying to avoid mistakes he made in past relationships too. She might still want to move at a different pace than he does, but she’s more likely to hear what he’s actually saying when he prefaces it with this phrase.
In the end, there’s no instant cure for tension and conflict in a relationship but it’s important to choose your words carefully from a place of love with the intention to be honest and to connect. When that happens, the effects are observable and powerful.
image credit: Flickr/bmills
Other Articles by Susie + Otto Collins: